The ROI of Journalists and Magazines Using Twitter

by Dan Blank on February 20, 2009

Here at Reed Business Information, many brands and editors have drank the Twitter Kool-Aid. Now we have to figure out something important:

Is this worth our time and effort?

Journalists, marketers and other folks at RBI are incredibly busy people. If they are using Twitter, what is the return on investment for their time and effort?

I decided to take a peak behind the curtains at one brand to see what all their Twittering has brought them. Let’s get this started:

  • The brand: School Library Journal
  • Timeframe measured: January 2009
  • Twitter Updates in January: 277
  • Started on Twitter: August 5, 2008

That’s a lot of updates, right?! So, at the most basic level, how much exposure did this bring to School Library Journal. It’s a difficult metric to pinpoint for a variety of reasons* (see more about metrics below), but a conservative estimate is:

A few thousand page views.

Let’s correlate Twitter updates to page views:

Some of these spikes align to big news items: coverage of the inauguration, a huge book awards event, and the tragic deaths of two librarians.

The anatomy of SLJ’s Tweets:

  • 109 Internal Links
    This is 39% of their updates, a huge number considering it includes some @replies and live reporting from events. Note: many internal links use URL shorteners like http://ow.ly or http://tinyurl.com.
  • 47 External Links
    This includes links within @Replies. Overall, 56% of their Tweets had some kind of link in it.
  • 41 @Replies
    This is 15% of their updates. I would imagine this number will grow considerably as the Twitter platform evolves as a communication channel.

  • 28 ReTweets
    These account for 10% of their updates. “ReTweeting” is when you send out someone else’s Twitter updates to your followers. Usually, you include the letters “RT” and the person’s Twitter handle as well. EG: “RT @DanBlank”
  • 1 #Hashtag
    I was sort of surprised by this – I thought that there would have been more of these set up around the book events, and for the inauguration. Kathy Ishizuka at SLJ said that her readers don’t yet use hash tags much, so SLJ uses them where appropriate, but not too much just yet.

Types of Tweets:

  • Reporting News
    • Live reporting: During a closely watched awards ceremony, SLJ provided play-by-play coverage of the announcements. In a two-hour period, they had 27 updates on Twitter, giving comprehensive reporting as it happened. Later on, they linked to the story they posted, as well as that of their sister publication, Publishers Weekly.
    • Breaking News: Two librarians, on their way home from the event mentioned above, were killed in a car accident. SLJ was able to share the news on Twitter before their article was written, linking to it later on. This is also an example of how readers want to engage with each other on a certain topic, even after they have read all the facts. Twitter is a channel for these conversations.
    • Sharing links via ReTweets or external links.
  • Promoting Our Articles/Blogs/Content
    • Obviously, this is a big part of how brands think about leveraging Twitter. It is important to remember balance, and to think of the needs of the readers. If you are just sending out 20 links to your own stuff each day, and not interacting with your community more, you might find a less engaged audience. Twitter is more than just another broadcasting channel.
  • @ Replies and connecting directly with members of the community/industry
    • A core benefit of Twitter is when a member of the community replies directly to SLJ, or vice versa. What’s more – it is done in the open, where anyone else can see and join in. Just think of how this differs from email, where the discussions are hidden and private, never going viral or taking on a life of there own – never able to find serendipitous moments as others find connections in the conversation. Email takes up a huge portion of many editor’s time, and yet is not measured in “page views” like Twitter is. It’s a really interesting comparison of which brings the biggest ROI.
    • Some Tweets give a behind the scenes glimpse of life at SLJ. One example is when SLJ mentioned on Twitter that they are about to interview author Neil Gaiman for an upcoming issue of the magazine. SLJ’s followers are book lovers – so this was of incredible interest to them.

Now, are these metrics good? Sure, they’re good. Are they great? Who knows, but we are seeing Twitter take off VERY quickly. This could be just the start of something huge. But wait, aren’t there other benefits of Twitter? Sure:

  • Engaging the Top 10% of Your Audience
    In SLJ’s case, they have noticed that many of their followers are prominent and influential people in their industry. This is a powerful relationship to establish. It increases the likelihood of these people writing about you more often in their blogs, and sending links your way in Twitter. If you aren’t active on Twitter, that means you have essentially opted out of these connections.

    Twitter also gives you more opportunities to connect your industry with these thought-leaders. It is about more than just sending traffic to us or away from us; it is about creating a community that helps each other. Twitter builds trust.

  • Improving Editorial
    Again and again, journalists tell me that they use Twitter to keep their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in their industry, and discovering the issues that people are talking about most.

    Many hot or controversial topics form very quickly – perhaps before you have a chance to write an article or research it thoroughly. Leveraging Twitter puts you at the forefront of these conversations, and can be a great way to get feedback about the particular topic. I have seen quite a few articles created by asking a question on Twitter, then aggregating those replies into an article.

    Listening to your industry via Twitter gives ideas for the content that they should be focusing on, and by actively engaging with this network of people, helps bring readers more deeply into your brand.

    Using Twitter to report live from an event is gives you a new tool in your toolbox. This process could be improved by marrying it with deeper updates on the website, and then using Twitter to push traffic to the deeper content. For instance: if one editor gives Twitter updates, another could be taking and sending photos to a blog or article page. This page can grow as other editors add photos and depth to the 140 character Tweets.

  • Marketing across more networks
    Being active on Twitter means that SLJ’s brand and expertise are findable on more networks. The image above is incredibly compelling – it shows SLJ’s readers sharing links to their stories, talking about their brand, and in conversation with them.

Overall, I think there is a strong case here for proving the value of Twitter. What is important to notice here is how rich School Library Journal’s Twitter updates are. They are full of links, replies to members of their community, and promoting of the best content from other Twitterers they follow.

What’s more, this is a network that is full of potential. Likely, it is just getting started, so I hope to see these metrics improve in the coming months.

Here are a few ideas to help expand your Twitter network:

  • Let your readers know you are on Twitter. In your newsletters, articles, and in your email signature.
  • Explain the value of Twitter – how this allows connections to your brand and other thought-leaders in your industry.

  • Ask your readers to become a bigger part of their brand by asking them important questions that you will use within your magazine and online articles or blogs.

How to manage Twitter with your competing responsibilities.
Likely, you have a ton of work on your plate. If you are an editor, you are responsible for researching articles, writing articles, creating blog entries, tagging content, uploading images, learning video, finding links, and a hundred other things in a given day.

When approaching Twitter, the key question is how much effort do we put towards leveraging it, and what are the best tactics to do so. How can you get started on Twitter without it having an adverse affect on your other tasks? Some ideas:

  • Create boundaries
    Identify how you want to leverage the medium, and then put some boundaries on it. It is better to start out slow and consistent, rather than jump in with both feet, only to sour on it after two weeks.

    For example: you might want to ensure you send out one internal link a day, and one note as to what your brand is working on or most excited about. You can always add to this, but at least your early followers will know what to expect from you, and hear from you often, but not too much.

  • Identify specific times to Twitter
    I find that it can be fun to Twitter “in the moment,” but for some, that can be another pressure of always thinking of something to communicate. So to start, focus on updating at times where your audience is most likely to be engaged. Maybe you will send a morning update with news, a question during lunch, and any @relies at the end of the day. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

  • Focus on your goals
    If you are hoping to drive traffic back to your website, focus on articles, questions and other content that are most likely to do this. Be very selective about what links you share and questions you ask. You can also take a break after a week or two to measure your Twitter stats, carefully analyzing what’s working and what isn’t.

    Here are three Twitter analytics tools you can leverage: Twitterholic, TweetStats, and Web Analytics Demystified.

  • Organize who updates your brand’s Twitter account
    SLJ’s Kathy Ishizuka says that followers tend to notice when different people update a Twitter feed. Even in 140 characters, there is a change in voice and style. Not sure of the best practice here, but consider what works best for your team. Perhaps several people need to shoulder the load. Or maybe one person is in a better position to easily Tweet about your content.
  • Make Twitter a part of your existing processes
    Don’t think of Twitter as something separate – just another of a 100 things you have to do. Use it to strengthen things you are already working on. Ask questions of those who follow you – find out how your readers can help you.

    I’ve always loved how JCK’s Rob Bates uses his blog as a part of his reporting process for deeper articles on JCK’s website and in there magazine. You can think about Twitter in the same way – as a way to increase the success and influence of the things you are already doing.

Overall – there are a variety of ways to think about the ROI of Twitter. One important thing to remember is that this is a medium that is still forming. Josh Hadro at Library Journal told me how they were Twittering away for months with a few hundred followers, and then suddenly jumped to well over a thousand followers recently. If you can establish yourself on Twitter in smart ways, using it to further the goals of your brand, you might find some nice rewards for doing so. But of course, the best reward is knowing that you are helping your readers and industry – furthering THEIR goals.

I’ll leave you with my favorite Tweet from School Library Journal:

Today’s lesson: Don’t Tweet before coffee. Drinking now.
8:37 AM Jan 23rd

(Thanks so much to Kathy Ishizuka, Brian Kenney, Josh Hadro and the many others who shared their Twitter experiences with me!)


*Missing Metrics

To identify the amount of traffic driven to School Library Journal from Twitter, I calculated referrer traffic from Twitter.com and three URL shortening services: ow.ly, tinyurl.com, and is.gd. This does not capture any traffic delivered by full SchoolLibraryJournal.com links that were in some Tweets.

Here is some more info as to why it is difficult to capture 100% of the metrics for Twitter traffic. The information below is an excerpt from an article on Twitip.com

  • Lack of Referer header for traffic from other Twitter clients. Desktop- and phone-based Twitter clients are popular. According to TweetStats, web accounts for about 51% of the whole Twitter apps, so where do the stats for the 49% go?. When someone clicks on your link, it will not carry the Referer header. Your log file and web stats are more likely to track this as direct traffic.
  • Syndicated Twitter feed displays the wrong Referer information. As Twitter also has RSS feed, web publishers can syndicate it easily on their web sites, blogs, FriendFeed or even Facebook accounts. When someone clicks on the link in the tweet, the header contains a Referer line, but from the other web sites instead of Twitter.
  • It doesn’t track traffic from RSS feed. If your followers decide to follow via RSS in their news readers, or if they subscribe to a keyword-search query via RSS, and then happen to click on the link in the tweet, it will be tracked as either direct traffic — if from a desktop RSS reader, or as traffic from online RSS reader in the Referer line.

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